1955’s The Night of the Hunter was the first and sadly last film to be directed by famed theatre and screen actor Charles Laughton. Though panned by audiences and critics on its theatrical release, the film has grown in statue over the years and is now widely regarded as a great work. Featuring expressionistic touches and unsettling themes, the film stands apart from the safer, noir tinted thrillers of its day. The plot features a villain so wicked that he scared me, an adult used to modern horror, nearly sixty years after he first appeared.
Robert Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell; a preacher turned serial killer who learns of a hidden fortune. While in prison on a minor charge, Powell shares a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man serving a long sentence for robbery and murder. Before his arrest, Harper was able to hide his loot of $10,000, telling his children but no one else where the money was. Powell is able to track down the fatherless family and attempts to get the secret from the children while hiding his intent behind his squeaky clean, ministerial front.
I have to admit that this film was completely unknown to me until fairly recently when a friend bought it up. From his description it sounded intriguing and reminded me of Fritz Lang’s M, another film ahead of its time in terms of its murderous themes. The films are actually quite different but share a similar visual style, one which was popularised by Lang in the 1920s. Night of the Hunter features sharp contrasts in shades, deep, highly overt shadow and sharp, angular shapes throughout its landscapes and interiors. Barns and houses are almost cartoonish in their proportion and shape, with jutting walls and sharply pointed roofs. Interiors frequently feature walls which fall towards the centre of the room, hemming the characters inside and occasionally rooms will fall in the centre of the frame, surrounded by darkness on all sides as though framed within a frame. This gives the impression that we are seeing something inside the film and added to the expressionist visuals and severely written characters; it often gives the film the feeling of a dream.
It could be argued that the film is indeed a dream, or more aptly a nightmare, one being had by one of the two young children at the centre of the drama. The villain and saviour of the piece feel like archetypes, copies of would be found in later films such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The mystery and adventure found in the film lends itself to a children’s picture but the chilling villain and creepy tension mean this is a film that is not intended for children. The story while fairly linear does veer off at tangents along the way, creating the odd surprise or rest bite from the wickedness. The three main locations, the home, the river and the new home, neatly separate the three acts with each producing differing emotions from both the character and audience. I found the plot engaging, occasionally chilling and overall very satisfying.
The use of a preacher as a villain may have something to do with the film’s cold reception in 1955. For us future dwellers we’re used to Paedophile Priests, Westboro loonies and the rise of Atheism, all of which and more have lessened the average person’s interest and trust in religion. In the 50s though, especially in America, religion was much more important to people and priests, vicars, preachers and ministers would have been held in high esteem by most people. To use a man like this as your villain is a bold step and one who uses religion as a cover for his evil deeds is bolder still. You see in some scenes how people are drawn to the man, his charisma carrying people along on his every word. Even the children’s mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the preacher’s charm. Mitchum’s use of the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms as a way of announcing his presence is particularly chilling. A killer singing or whistling to announce their arrival is a stable of the movies and something which is guaranteed to get the hairs standing on end.
Mitchum plays a blinder in the role of the crooked religion peddler. He’s both charming and charismatic which is what helps to draw the characters towards him. It also allows him to commit heinous crimes while people are focused on other aspects of his personality. It’s the perfect cover. He’s magnificently cast and although known for his psychological, villainous roles, he still surprises. Shelley Winters has a couple of great scenes with Mitchum but is overshadowed by other actors. Both young actors, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, aged just eleven and six (aprox) respectively, are also well cast. Although their performances are a little wooden or static at times, they both show flashes of deep-set emotion. Chapin creates the illusion of being wise beyond his years and Bruce performs remarkably complex dialogue for a girl of just six. Lillian Gish, a star of the silent era, makes an appearance in a pivotal role during the final half hour. Gish, whose film career spanned an immense era from 1912-1987, initially comes across as wooden but suddenly comes alive after a couple of scenes to steal the film’s finale.
The Night of the Hunter is a film I’m really glad to have been told about. Its cinematography is enchanting, with flashes of fairytale imagery grounded in a thriller context. It looks fantastic and is very well directed by the first time Laughton. It’s a shame that the film’s reception caused him to turn his back on film direction and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see its legacy alter for the better. Still, he leaves behind a modernist tale, set in a rural landscape which feels ahead of its time despite relying on methods and imagery that were already considered antique in the 1950s.
- In later life, Robert Mitchum stated that Charles Laughton was his favourite director to work with and that this was the favourite of the many films in which he starred.
- Gary Cooper turned down the role of the preacher for fear that it would prove detrimental to his career.
- Cinematographer Stanley Cortez said that the only directors that he worked with who understood light were Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.
- The shot of Shelley Winters in the water was completed using a dummy.